Nora Stephens: Sustainable jobs

By Nora Stephens, Daily Opinion Columnist
Published December 5, 2011

Unemployment in the state of Michigan is the fourth highest in the nation at 10.6 percent. The unemployment rate has been higher than 10 percent for longer than any other state. Those are the cold, hard, disheartening, facts.

But who are the unemployed? I find these numbers are often thrown at us without explaining the true demographics of people who are having difficulty putting food on the table for their families. In Michigan, the chronically-unemployed come from working class communities, where even people who have jobs are not receiving a livable wage. Over two-thirds of workers in the state earn a median wage that is considered low income for a family of four.

In the recent weeks there have been several Michigan Daily articles written about the importance of sustainability. So propose we talk about combining the two — let's start a conversation around sustainability and working-class jobs, or what esteemed environmental and civil rights activist Van Jones calls a "green collar economy."

So what can be done? And how can college students have an effect on improving the state’s unemployment rate?

My work as an intern with Jobs for Justice, a Southeast Michigan branch of a coalition-building community organizing group, has given me some firsthand insight into what could fundamentally improve employment levels and have positive effects on the environment for Michiganders and specifically Detroiters. It is important to keep in mind that Detroit’s unemployment rate, at 12.7 percent, is higher than the state’s already upsettingly high rate — illustrating how imperative it is to focus our efforts on Detroit.

These efforts include transforming and re-opening old automobile manufacturing plants — that were once the epitome of the Detroit, and Michigan, economy — into plants that manufacture items like electric vehicles and wind turbines that are environmentally friendly, though there is some debate as to how effective electric vehicles are in terms of reducing the use of natural resources, they are an effective way to eradicate some of the country's disgustingly high fossil fuel usage. And what better place to mass-produce these vehicles than in the Motor City?

An e-petition, titled “Electric Vehicles: Built by Michigan,” is circling around and calling for people to “urge Governor Rick Snyder and the state Legislature to support the success of Michigan's emerging electric car industry.” By contacting our local and state government, we can voice our support for “Senator Stabenow’s proposed legislation that would allow electric vehicle buyers to receive a direct rebate instead of a tax credit” and “implementing clean fuel standards that require an increasing percentage of electricity and other alternative fuels for powering vehicles within Michigan” — just to name a few of the petition’s proposals. By supporting the growth of the electric car industry and the manufacturing of these vehicles in Detroit, we are supporting the necessity to open more plants and create more jobs for workers — not to mention, supporting the car industry to bring labor jobs back from foreign soil to the United States.

In addition to supporting the re-opening of old plants for manufacturing environmentally friendly items, we can also support the weatherization of low-income homes to cut-down homeowners’ heat costs. An initiative by non-profits WARM Training Center and Southwest Solutions aims to create jobs for the chronically unemployed by refurbishing the homes of low-income senior citizens in the Detroit area. Southwest Solutions works with WARM Training Center, which offers free, unpaid, 10-week long skill-trainings in home repair, green building and energy-efficient building. These trainings have created 11 corps of workers who are skilled in making homes more energy efficient at a low cost. We can support the work of programs like these, which create working-class jobs, cut down the heating bills of low-income citizens and improve the energy efficiency of homes.

Supporting green collar jobs is a key piece in supporting an economic recovery in Michigan. The work is currently taking place, but more supporters are necessary, so let's rally around the creation of jobs and sustainable initiatives.

Nora Stephens can be reached at